After Donald Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural address — essentially declaring war on the whole congressional “establishment” that sat in uncomfortable attendance — former president George W. Bush reportedly commented, “That was some weird s--t.” Biden’s speech was neither. Behind the new president’s words you could almost hear the work crews rebuilding America’s moral and political guardrails. That infrastructure project is a precondition for the return of a politics that is normal and noble.
The address was more authentic to Biden than rhetorically ambitious, objectives that typically diverge. It was clearly intended to give a sense of the president as a man — upbeat, forthright, practical, welcoming. The speech was a rhetorical X-ray. It showed that Biden’s heart is in the right place — something that could not be assumed in Trump’s alien anatomy. It is usually not high praise to say that an inaugural address puts you to sleep. But I will sleep better at night knowing that a man of admirable character holds the presidency.
Biden’s speech correctly described the layered challenges facing the country. There is the pandemic, the economic crisis, racial injustice and climate disruption — each a problem that would be hard enough at any time. All are complicated by a crisis of truth itself. How do you make incremental progress when citizens do not live in overlapping factual universes? How do you build coalitions with those who question the legitimacy of elections? In this environment, Biden bluntly asked whether national unity is a “foolish fantasy.”
In his first inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt described the horrific crisis of a collapsed economy. But then he said of those difficulties: “They concern, thank God, only material things.” That is not a claim that Biden could make. America’s difficulties are both cultural and epistemological. How does any leader jump a canyon this wide?
Biden gave one answer that is tougher than it first sounds. Americans can unite “to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness.” He was careful to say, “We can treat each other with dignity and respect” rather than “We will treat each other with dignity and respect” — an appropriate humility. But this is not really an invitation to unity, defined as unanimity. His speech declared an intention to build a social consensus against the destructive political habits of a significant portion of the population — anger, hatred, extremism, lawlessness. This will involve drawing some hard lines, such as: “There is truth, and there are lies.” And Biden held political leaders particularly responsible for confusing those categories. The president, to his credit, is making outreach for a specific purpose: the vindication of reality.
Biden’s second description of national unity was more realistic than it first sounds. “I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real, but I also know they are not new,” he said. “Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial, and victory is never assured.” This accurate description of the American story assumes patient, generational effort. Biden accepts no lost causes because there are no fully won causes.
The new president’s third response to the “fantasy” of unity was less humble than it first sounds. Biden affirmed: “My whole soul is in this.” He said: “I will be a president for all Americans.” He mentioned his congressional service as an advantage. “I will always level with you,” he said. “I will defend the Constitution. I’ll defend our democracy. I’ll defend America, and I will give all.” This sounded like a man who really believes he can make a rusty system work.
Will that happen? I am not sure. But I want a president who is sure. I want a president who believes in our constitutional system and in himself. I want America to abandon an absurd hyperpopulism that attacks skill and experience and expertise. And Biden sounded like the leader for this moment.